There are a lot of Wise Fools in media; on the television, on the radio, arguably even more of them out here in the blogipelago. Alleged domain-level experts (who just so happen to be lifelong career conservatives), always with some authoritative title from a well-funded institution after their name. I’m sure this intellectual niche has always existed, but since the mid-1990s or so (roughly about the time when panel-based journalism because the norm) it does seem to have gotten more endemic. No truly fair and balanced panel discussion on cable news is complete without one or two of these on the panel. There’s good money in it. Nice stable work, if you can get it.
If the topic is Climate Change, you can count on at least one Climate Change denier, appropriately credentialed and funded by a conservative think tank, to take up half the discussion. Evolution? Here’s Dr. Jones-Smith IV, D.D., Esq., PhD; clergyman/biologist from the Institute for Creation Science with his view. Go over to CNBC and you’ll see Larry Kudlow (one of the original Wise Fools of television) spouting bad investment advice, backed by often untrue ‘facts’. If you prefer Adderal to cocaine, Jim Cramer is ready for your non-skeptical embrace. Paul Ryan and Mitch Daniels have some very serious people convinced that the Path to Prosperity is paved with the bones of the poor, the sick, and the elderly. And so on, ad infinitum.
The ubiquitous panel format is transparent to most of us by now:
- Topic X is introduced by Moderator.
- Actual credentialed domain-level expert (call her DLE) is introduced.
- Very Serious Person (VSP) from “The Foundation/Institute/Society for Y” (generally with no formal training in topic X) is introduced
- Moderator introduces the controversy.
- DLE attempts to state fact-based opinion
- VSP does one of: (1) Deny the basic facts; (2) Throws out false ‘facts’ of their own; or (3) Accuses DLE of having some shadowy liberal agenda against Everything Good and True
- Moderator (guided by a mix of unavoidable personal bias and unsubtle economic and professional tensions) falsely equivocates, fails to correct any falsehoods or (despite their title), to moderate much of anything.
- Go to Commercial.
Repeat this exercise for 30+ years, and your end state is a culture in which any fool with an opinion, no matter how unscientific, unsound or just plain wrong, feels entitled to ignore or accuse anyone who disagrees with them. Regardless of any evidence or arguments presented against them, in any form or format. It is now nearly impossible for the non-expert (ie most of us) to discern what is true or not-true on any given topic. Which means that we’ve become unanchored from the Real. We now lack even the common terms to discuss what the Real might even be.
Consensus Reality, it turns out, requires a minimum of consensus. Whatever ‘consensus’ is supposed to mean.
Chris Mooney’s new thesis (and book) diagnoses our problem perfectly, IMO:
Their willingness to deny what’s true may seem especially outrageous when it infects scientific topics like evolution or climate change. But the same thing happens with economics, with American history, and with any other factual matter where there’s something ideological—in other words, something emotional and personal—at stake.
As soon as that occurs, today’s conservatives have their own “truth,” their own experts to spout it, and their own communication channels—newspapers, cable networks, talk radio shows, blogs, encyclopedias, think tanks, even universities—to broad- and narrowcast it.
This state of affairs has been formally studied, and (contrary to what I would have thought had you asked me just a few months ago), this ignorance does not correlate with education. There are plenty of educated conservatives, with highly advanced degrees, who have consciously chosen to ignore formalized science. They’ve chosen to Fight the Enlightenment.
Chris Mooney again:
The cost of this assault on reality is dramatic. Many of these falsehoods affect lives and have had—or will have—world-changing consequences. And more dangerous than any of them is the utter erosion of a shared sense of what’s true—which they both generate, and perpetuate.
You can’t decide how to govern or how to vote without at least some understanding of the facts, of what your true interests and goals are, or without an honest look at the real-world risks, benefits and consequences thereof. Granted, facts can be squishy and elusive things– but up until now at least, no one seriously proposed that there was no such thing as an outside objective truth.
I want to understand how we got here.